A Phenomenology of Birdcalls

by Kiko Matsing

Catalogue d'oiseaux Catalogue d'oiseaux Catalogue d'oiseaux

20 February 2005, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. The sun has come out after days of grey cheerless skies. The walk around campus was pleasant: the grass, a carpet of vivid green, a light wind was blowing, and birds twittered unseen above the trees. We live in a persistent background of noise, the hum and drone of the city, that the pure sound of birdcalls on such an afternoon as this comes as refreshing surprise. It is like hiking a long distance on a hot day, when suddenly, upon turning a corner, we hear the vigorous sluicing of water from a spring. Olivier Messiaen sought the birds in the forests of France, and with the infinite patience of a naturalist, sat for hours under trees, transcribing their notes into piano music.

We live in a regime of images, of signs and visual cues, that constitute much of our deliberate thoughts. An image is always before us, and our immediate response to it is positivist; we analyze it and reduce it to some form of meaning. Sound, on the other hand, always catches us by surprise. Birdcalls. A strain of music. A familiar voice. We respond to sound autonomously, almost without meaning to, as when we suddenly become aware of, say, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Debussy’s Clair de Lune playing in another room, and find ourselves pausing from our work and closing our eyes to listen.

Music, especially, has a direct way of speaking to us, disrupting our attention, stopping us in our tracks. We may conjure up images like “moonlight”, but this neither adds nor takes away from the pleasure of listening itself; it only transposes it into another form, i.e. the pleasure of seeing moonlight. Music resists being reduced to categories of meaning. We apprehend it almost viscerally, like pain and pleasure, at the level of feeling. We respond to it like tuning forks to the physicality of sound, as when it resonates with vibrations propagating in air.

The warbling of birds has more likely to do with finding a mate, and nothing at all about indulging me this afternoon. Such joy it brings me is superfluous, beside the point, yet gives me even more pleasure because it is so.